High school commencement: Class of 2017 looks forward to finding ‘what lies within’ (SLIDESHOW)

The scholars and the slouches, the artsy and eccentric, football heros, prom queens and kids who quietly studied, built friendships, and grew up without fuss or notice.

Ridgefield High School’s Class of 2017 crossed the stage in black gowns and orange hoods Friday, going from seniors to graduates, with each name greeted by some response — applause, cheers, whooping and hollering.

But the longest ovation — a sustained tribute to the perseverance and triumph that graduation day represents, growing beyond friends and family to include the whole class and the entire audience filling the cavernous basketball area — went to the kid who crossed the stage in a power wheelchair.

After the processional and the speeches, and the singing by graduation choir — The Star Spangled Banner, then Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide — the seniors sat, occasionally batting balloons and beach balls to pass the time as the classmates were called up. Some raised their arms in triumph, one blew kisses toward the crowd. Many just shook hands with principal Stacy Gross — or got a hug from her — and accepted their diplomas.

The flat tops of the students’ mortarboard hats showed great decorative initiative. Many proudly proclaimed college destinations: “UConn,” “Virginia,” “BU,” “Babson College.”

One celebrated the institution left behind: “TIGERS.”

Some celebrated individuality: flowers, “ta-ta for now,” a Donald Duck figurine, and one mortarboard was rigged up with an electronic screen display that went on and off, changing colors and shapes, a billboard asserting the limitless promise of a tech-savvy generation.

“What could I possibly say that would speak to all your ambitions and dreams?” Valedictorian Julia Yu told classmates. “... Something about the necessity of failure before success. About the necessity of long-term perseverance and self-affirmation? Of loving what you do? Or the power of reaching out to others for help when you need it…”

She felt it beyond her.

“Soon we will have to each find our own way, always shaped by these brief four years that we’ve shared together. Still, as we work toward our own futures, our path will continue to intersect and run alongside those of others. We are part of a larger world from which we can learn, grow and do so much more than we could ever do alone. As there is strength in forging one’s own path, there is strength in walking together towards our future.

“Ultimately, the words you need to hear will come not from me, but from yourselves and those that you walk with. Keep listening. So, class of 2017, I have only this advice: Move forward, together, and proudly.”

Highs and lows

RHS Principal Dr. Stacey Gross recalled Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wise words. “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

“To me,” Dr. Gross said, “this quote means that all you have experienced both celebratory and difficult during your four years at Ridgefield High School plays an important, but minor role in your life as you move forward.

“The highs and lows of exams and SATs; the athletic championships and the losses in the final seconds of a game; the roles you auditioned for in the school plays; the student government elections; the worthy community service causes you supported; and the time you rode to school on scooters, roller blades, lawn tractors and even a small excavator, are all memories of your high school career. However, these memories, while valuable, are not as important as your sense of ‘who you are.’

“...I encourage you to take that wonderful sense of ‘you’ that has developed during your years at Ridgefield High School and let it carry you proudly through all that lies before you.”

‘Live in the moment’

Class president Luke St. Pierre recalled three incidents during high school that had taught him lessons: in a crowded subway car on a trip to New York City he’d been uncomfortable, then saw a friend making the best of the situation by striking up an interesting conversation with a total stranger; during the physics class’s annual cardboard boat race, his elaborately engineered craft had sunk as classmates sailed by on a simple raft; and during the FCIAC championship basketball game the contagious school spirit of the crowd had helped him let go of worries about tomorrow’s test and enjoy the excitement of the Ridgefield-Wilton rivalry.

“Remember to make the best of any situation, don’t overthink it, and always live in the moment,” he told classmates.

Write it down

Class Speaker Karena Landler urged the classmates who’d chosen her to write down recollections.

“This graduation is, in some ways, the culmination of a childhood. Many of us grew up together, which means we have seen each other at our best (hopefully, now) and at our worst (middle school). We went into different classes and found unique passions as time went on, but we are united by the place in which we experienced this change.

“So I invite you to wrack your brains. Try to find something seemingly small to remember about your time as a freshman, as a sophomore, as a junior. This isn’t about the life-defining moments that you will write in your autobiography, nor the ones that you will frame in photos later found in cardboard boxes in the attic. This is about the moments that will help you remember who you once were, the way you once thought, even if it was short-lived ...

“Every one of us changed and matured over these four years, even those of us who put up a really good fight against change got pushed into it.

“... We are leaving Ridgefield far different from who we were when we entered. We witnessed a lot this year: some great sports victories, I’m told, to a lawnmower parade; there were certainly lots of things to remember.

“... I’m sure you all remember a few things from this year that I don’t, or feel like I left something important out of this speech. To you I say: write it down. After all, if this graduation means one thing, it means that we are definitely literate.”

Herculean strength

English teacher Katherine Gabbay, the class’s chosen faculty speaker, offered a look at teachers’ deep affection for their students.

“Graduates, on this celebratory day, you may not realize that for your teachers, this is one of the saddest days of our careers. We who have pushed and prodded you, questioned and lectured you, given dirty looks to you, and maybe even assigned push ups to you in the RHS hallways — it is a sad day because you are leaving us.

“When we teachers return in the fall, even with the crush of new students, the hallways will feel emptier without your presence. We will think we see your long blond hair, that hat or college sweatshirt that you constantly wore, but as we get closer, it won’t be your voices that we hear, you won’t drop by our offices, and other students will fill the seats that were yours.”

She recalled when two boys volunteered to play Romeo and Juliet. “I remember the class laughing so hard we almost cried.”

And she said, “I will never forget when a class took a walk on a beautiful spring day to honor Thoreau. One student spontaneously delivered a eulogy for a bird that she had seen crash into a hallway window earlier that day. Most of the class kept solemn faces, but some of us couldn’t keep it together …

“So class of 2017, take this Herculean strength that you have built here in Ridgefield and go bravely to your new adventures. But don’t forget to come back and share your victories and challenges with the people who have loved you back home.”